December 18, 2003

Alec Nove! Thou Should'st Be Living at This Hour!

The Problem With the Left (he said, making broad hand-waving gestures in that direction) is that we have no bloody institutional memory. Or more exactly, we remember the intricate details of ancient faction fights, but we keep being taken by the same superficially attractive but fundamentally wrong ideas over and over again. The example inspiring this horrid over-generalization is a month-old Grauniad column by George Monbiot, on the European Social Forum.

No one at the European Social Forum seemed to be in much doubt about why this is happening. The real decisions are being made at the continental or the global level --- in Brussels, the White House, the boardrooms of the banks and corporations --- and handed down to national governments for implementation. This is why the movement is obsessed with globalisation: until citizens can seize control of global politics, we cannot regain control of national politics.

But there are other questions which we seem to have neglected. Our movement has a tendency to fetishise new forms of participatory democracy, such as the "consultas" developed by the Zapatistas in Mexico, or the participatory budgets drawn up in Brazil. These are useful models, but we must also ask ourselves what we can do to recolonise and revitalise parliamentary politics. It is not enough, as many advocate, simply to turn our backs on the system for which our political ancestors lost so much blood. True democracy surely involves a combination of participation and representation. Our task is to find the means of rattling the bars of our enclosed and corrupted parliaments without succumbing to their enclosure and corruption.

The biggest question of all is the one concerning the c-word. We have little difficulty in dealing, in theory at least, with the medium-sized issues: What should be done about the World Bank? How can the anti-union laws be reversed? But we have scarcely attempted, as a movement, to tackle the big issue: what should be done about capitalism? Whenever anyone in Paris announced that capitalism in all its forms should be overthrown, everyone cheered. But is this really what we want? And, if so, with what do we hope to replace it? And could that other system be established without violent repression?

In Paris, some of us tried to tackle this question in a session called "life after capitalism". By the end of it, I was as unconvinced by my own answers as I was by everyone else's. While I was speaking, the words died in my mouth, as it struck me with horrible clarity that as long as incentives to cheat exist (and they always will) none of our alternatives could be applied universally without totalitarianism. The only coherent programme presented in the meeting was the one proposed by the man from the "League for the Fifth International", who called for the destruction of the capitalist class and the establishment of a command economy. I searched the pamphlet he gave me for any recognition of the fact that something like this had been tried before and hadn't worked out very well, but without success. (Instead I learned that, come the revolution, the members of the Fourth International will be the first against the wall, as they have "obscured the differences" between Marxism and its opponents.)

It seems to me that the questions we urgently need to ask ourselves are these: is totalitarianism the only means of eliminating capitalism? If so, and if, as almost all of us profess to do, we abhor totalitarianism, can we continue to call ourselves anti-capitalists? If there is no humane and democratic answer to the question of what a world without capitalism would look like, then should we not abandon the pursuit of unicorns, and concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit?

I rarely agree with what Mobiot writes, but there's no denying that he's a smart man (e.g., he doesn't fetishize participatory democracy), and he's made a life for himself on the left. Only now it occurs to him to wonder what should replace capitalism, and how, and whether it can be done without leading to totalitarianism? And to say it like this isn't a conversation we've had before! We've had it over and over again, ever since the 1930s; people have dedicated their careers to devising solutions; and it's not like they've come up empty-handed. You might think that something of these seventy years of debate on the problems of command economies, market socialism, mixed economies, the foundations of egalitarianism, and the varieties of possible economic arrangements, might've sunk in, so that idiots advocating 1919-vintage War Communism would not be the only people with a coherent point of view. --- Once again, this is not a personal slam on Monbiot, who after all is now thinking about this, and who shows considerable integrity in admitting "the words died in my mouth". I just feel like somebody should've been handing out free copies of The Economics of Feasible Socialism --- 50,000 of them, by the sound of it. [Via Indiawest.]

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